Why New Jersey Transparency Laws Encounter Open Hostility

While the state's transparency laws enshrine the crucial presumptions that government meetings and documents are open to the public, statutes have grown old enough to reveal weaknesses and need updates.

by The Philadelphia Inquirer / June 23, 2015

(TNS) -- Despite New Jersey's relatively progressive transparency laws, the idea of open government still provokes plenty of open hostility in some of the darker corners of its vast bureaucracy. Consider last year's stabbing deaths of political insider John Sheridan and his wife, the basic nature of which was concealed for months in violation of state law. Or take a South Jersey town council's brief experiment this year with pointedly ignoring questions and comments from the public.

A recent attempt to strengthen and modernize the state's landmark transparency laws, the Open Public Records Act and the Open Public Meetings Act, has also encountered resistance. A state Senate committee was expected to vote on a pair of bills amending the laws two weeks ago, but the measures were held amid objections from interest groups and lawmakers.

Sponsored by Sens. Loretta Weinberg (D., Bergen) and Joseph Pennacchio (R., Morris), the bills are to be considered again today. With about a year of effort behind them and the Legislature's long summer recess ahead, the committee should move the legislation.

The state's transparency laws enshrine the crucial presumptions that government meetings and documents are open to the public. But the records and meetings statutes have grown old enough - after 14 and 40 years, respectively - to reveal weaknesses and need updates.

One of the most important provisions of the legislation at hand would expand the laws' purview to include quasi-governmental bodies "in which one or more public agencies exercise substantial control," such as the League of Municipalities and the School Boards Association. Some of the entities that could be affected seem to have been designed to avoid disclosure. A recently filed lawsuit argues that Choose New Jersey, a nonprofit that has paid for Gov. Christie's foreign trade missions, should be subject to the open-records law - a prospect that will become more likely if the law is expanded.

The legislation would also improve the open-meetings law by requiring that more comprehensive agendas be posted online before meetings and that audio recordings be made available afterward. Further accounting for current technology, it would prohibit members of town councils, school boards, and the like from communicating surreptitiously with each other by text or other electronic means during public meetings. And it would give the law teeth by instituting fines for flagrant violations and requiring public entities to cover the costs of successful legal challenges.

The records law, meanwhile, would be amended to require that governments identify and explain redactions of documents. Meanwhile, a press representative would be added to the council that adjudicates records disputes.

One glaring sign of the laws' age is that the open-meetings act allows public notice to be provided via telegram. In other words, the Legislature has already fallen well short of the constant vigilance open government requires.

©2015 The Philadelphia Inquirer. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.